Tag Archives: Bonhoeffer

Listening to Dietrich

In the opening days of the pandemic, when everything came to a grinding halt and people everywhere were looking for a way to fill the time, I decided to read through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. My rational was simple: Bonhoeffer’s experience of being away from his family and friends during the high celebrations of Good Friday or Easter, might prove helpful to me in my own sojourn away from the community of faith. Indeed, this proved to be true. Bonhoeffer’s words provided me both clarity and perspective. I found myself moved by his words. His reflection on the being able to hear the church bells from inside his prison cell, and how that lifted his reflection to the unceasing presence of the Church was particularly relevant for me at the time.

I have always loved Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His work Life Together has become the top book in my library (besides the Bible of course!). I used many of Bonhoeffer’s insights in my doctoral study on Christian community. In fact, I joked with many of my fellow students that my thesis really ought to be three words: “Read Life Together.” During my studies, I moved from Life Together, to Bonhoeffers own doctoral thesis “Sanctorum Communio.” A thicker read, a harder read, but worth it, nonetheless. The two sing texts together splendidly. In many respects Sanctorum Communio is the theological basis upon which Life Together is founded.

Thus, following my walk through his Letters and Papers, I decided to tackle some of Bonhoeffer’s other writings. I jumped to Discipleship, which I had read before yet forgotten just how profound this work is. What was particularly moving for me as I re-read this work was the decision remain cognizant of the Nazi regime continually playing in the background. After all, this was the very context in which Bonhoeffer was writing, and the very world he was addressing. Aided by the excellent editorial notes, Bonhoeffer’s profoundly prophetic teaching reverberated with new clarity. I began to see the depth of his faith, his passion, and his bravery.

Since then, I have continually had Bonhoeffer by my side. I re-read Life Together and then moved to Creation and Fall. I even began listening to a podcast through The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, hosted by Pastor Robert Schenck. Recently, my wife gave me the devotional “A Year with Bonhoeffer,” and I have just begun tackling Bonhoeffer’s Ethics – A series of writings he worked on between the years of 1940 and 1945. After all, as Schenck says frequently in the podcast, “if you want to understand Bonhoeffer, you have read Ethics.”

Throughout this time, Bonhoeffer’s voice has continually risen out of the pages of history. I find his words to possess an uncanny clarity and relevance for our lives today, particularly considering the many social, political, theological, and ethical questions we are facing. When I spend time with Dietrich, I often forget that I am reading a theologian of the past. His voice is pre-eminently current.

Case in point:  On the very day when supporters of President Trump, on his strong insistence, stormed the Capital Building in the United States, in direct defiance of law, order, and the democracy they hold to so dearly, I read these words from Bonhoeffers Ethics:

For the tyrannical despiser of men popularity is the token of the highest love of mankind. His secret profound mistrust for all human beings he conceals behind words stolen from a true community. In the presence of the crowd he professes to be one of their number, and at the same time he sings his own praises with the most revolting vanity and scorns the rights of every individual. He thinks people stupid, and they become stupid. He thinks them weak, and they become weak. He thinks them criminal, and they become criminals. His most sacred earnestness is a frivolous game. His hearty and worthy solicitude is the most impudent cynicism. In his profound contempt for his fellow-men he seeks the favor of those whom he despises, and the more he does so the more certainly he promotes the deification of his own person by the mob.

Beside these words I wrote “This is scary.” The obvious similarity between the despiser of humanity in Bonhoeffer’s day, and that which is occurring south of the border is frightening to say the least. I cannot read these words and not hear Bonhoeffer speak directly to our world, and our time.

It is not simply the similarity between the two individuals that is frightening. Underneath it all is the church’s continual vacillation to governmental power. Bonhoeffer constantly spoke against the state church of the day, and their complicity in the Nazi program. With full knowledge of the horrors of the holocaust the church bowed its head and abandoned its theological and moral principles. Sadly, in some cases, the church acted in full support. Well known, and well-regarded, theologian of the day, Paul Althous referred to Adolf Hitler as “a gift and miracle for God.” To be clear, this was not said by some unknown theologian on the fringes. At the time of this statement, Althous was a professor at the University of Erlangen and had long established himself as one among the most prominent of Lutheran theologians. Preeminent Bonhoeffer Scholar, Victoria Barnett, writes “[I]t has become abundantly clear that [the Churches’] failure to respond to the horrid events…was not due to ignorance; they knew what was happening. Ultimately, the Churches’ lapses during the Nazi era were lapses of vision and determination.” (The Role of Churches in Nazi Germany | ADL)

This makes my heart hurt, but honestly, so does the capitulation of the Evangelical Church in the States to the modern day “despiser of humankind.” After all, it is probably not too much of a stretch to assume that many of the individuals marching on the Capital probably self-confess to be pious and devout Christians. But even if this is not been the case, the church today has been silent amid all the dehumanizing activity of the sitting president. While we may be uncomfortable drawing a direct comparison between Donald and Adolf, we should not ignore the fact that silence of the church in our day is eerily similar to the silence of the church in the 1930’s and 40s.

Given this, Bonhoeffer’s voice sounds louder and louder in my mind and heart. His witness is frighteningly prophetic. And yet, therein lies some hope. For if Bonhoeffer was a pastor who could fearlessly speak against the horrors of his day, then this opens the door for us all. We can speak out. The church can have a voice. What is more, in the witness of his words, and his martyrdom, the church does have a voice. So, let us rise and listen to Dietrich. Let us hear the faithful call to dismantle all the lies and falsehoods of today. More importantly, with Bonhoeffer’s insistence and example, let’s hear the call to be a better Church, and better Christians.

O Blessed Boredom: Isolation and the dethronement of idols

This article first appeared at http://www.medium.com/ministrymatters

It’s been over two months of lock downs, isolation, physical distancing, and mask-wearing.  Depending on where you live, you may be facing this for the foreseeable future.  For myself, I have long moved past my initial bouts of irritation.  Being unable to run down to the local mall and pick up a present for my wife’s birthday made me pout and sit around like a frustrated lump.  This may seem reasonable enough, but my irritations didn’t stop there.  I felt the prick of annoyance when faced with being unable to journey to my local coffee shop, or wander through the electronic store in search for a new gizmo.  Frankly, I almost threw a hissy-fit when I realised I couldn’t get the specialty ingredients for the dinner I wanted to make.  And even though random stores and restaurants may be opening all around us, the times of unrestricted normalcy of which we were previously accustomed has long gone.  In its replacement…Nothing. 

So, like so many others, I must confess; I am bored.

Boredom is easy to recognise.  We diagnose it as a natural consequence of inactivity.  But what if we looked deeper?  Could our internal sense of boredom point to something significant in our spiritual lives?  Might boredom highlight a twisting of our inner selves; a spiritual dis-ease needing to be addressed?  Might we see boredom as indicative of God calling us back to the divine centre in which our souls must rest and be satisfied? 

As I sat with this thought, I happened to come across Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Letters and Papers from Prison. I figured if anyone might have something to say regarding being unexpectedly cut-off from his church community (and all other social activity for that matter), it would be Bonhoeffer.  Happily, as I have come to expect by this thoughtful pastor, he did not disappointBonhoeffer begins this book by offering a reflection on, what he terms, mass-leveling events.  These events, writes Bonhoeffer, mean:

“…the renunciation of all the place-hunting, a break with the cult of the ‘star’, an open eye both upwards and downwards…Culturally, it means a return from the newspaper and the radio to the book, from feverish activity to unhurried leisure, from dispersion to concentration, from sensationalism to reflection, from virtuosity to art, from snobbery to modesty, from extravagance to moderation.”  [i]

With prophetic voice, Bonhoeffer cuts through our tendency to focus on petty irritations and points us to a deeper truth potentially at work. Mass-levelling events call us away from our idolatries.  They unmask the sandy foundations upon which we are tempted build our lives.  After all, the call away from extravagance to moderation, or from sensationalism to reflection is eerily contemporary is it not?  

If we are honest with ourselves, I believe we will see that most of our frustrations centre around the inability to satisfy temporary delights. For example, why is it that we feel frustrated when unable to sit in our favourite coffee shop?  Does this disclose something about ourselves?  Perhaps a deep-seeded insecurity is at play, or a desire for image-management expressed in our propensity to attribute a certain status to particular brands and places.  In this way, the frustration we feel over not being able to obtain our favourite latte may not be so much a matter of flavor or taste, but about the inability to be recognized as the kind of person who enjoys certain beverages.  Is the frustration connected to a loss of a beverage, or loss of perceived status?

Similarly, can we not clearly see, in light of the pandemic, how much of life is mediated through the “cult of the star”? Celebrity status invades much of life, often without our conscious acknowledgement. Instead of a movement away from the radio could we not say that the time of pandemic calls us away from the computer, the cell-phone, the constant buzz of social media?  Being bored at the prospect of binge-watching yet another Netflix series only highlights how inept such things are at satisfying the deep yearnings of our souls.  Yet too often these are the things to which we turn.

Of course, I do not want to deny that there are some legitimate pains being experienced in this time.  The inability to hug a grandchild, or celebrate a birthday with loved ones, is undoubtedly a heartache with which I sympathise.  In response to these legitimate pains, all we can do is acknowledge the difficulty of the time in which we live.   And, in fact, this is the same response we are called to make when faced with the frustrated boredom in other spheres.  The way forward is not to replace our lost comforts with new, but equally idolatrous, tasks or entertainments.   Replacing one idol with another will do us no spiritual good.  Instead, boredom calls us to sit within it; to recognise our experience of boredom as a dissatisfaction of heart and soul.  Boredom equals restlessness, and when we are restless we must enter those moments prayerfully, searching for the presence of God.  As Archbishop Rowan Williams writes:

 “. . . to try to escape boredom…restlessness, unsatisfied desire by searching for fresh tasks and fresh ideas is to attempt to seal off these areas from grace.  Without the humiliating and wholly ‘unspiritual’ experience of cell-life – the limited routine of trivial tasks, the sheer tedium and loneliness – there would be no way of confronting much of human nature.  It is a discipline to destroy illusion.” [ii]

For Williams, combatting boredom by propping up new entertainments still roots us in a life of illusion.  It is to still live our lives under the goal of entertainment, distraction, or bliss.  The illusion, or the idol, of self-gratification still reigns supreme in our lives, now just under a new guise. Thus, new entertainments fail to address the source of spiritual dis-ease.  Ultimately, they will lead to the same frustrated boredom as experienced prior. 

Instead of propping up new entertainments, we must recognise our sensations of boredom for what they are, the stirrings of inner restlessness. Restlessness is not a product of what exists or does not exist; it is indicative of dissatisfaction deep within.   As Williams writes, the Christian person, wrestling with the illusion of boredom and tediousness, must “recognise that root of illusion in himself [sic].”  Boredom points out to us that we have lost our centre.  Thus, we must sit within our restless in order to overcome it.  We must seek God’s direction and insight into from where our dissatisfactions stem.  Do we place too much emphasis on being entertained?  Does this restlessness speak to an attempt to overly manage or control our own life?  Can we loosen our life of ease and comfort in order to gain the true life of divine closeness?

We are created for a life of relational intimacy with God.  We are not created to be endlessly entertained.  Thus, the boredom of our lives performs a prophetic function within us.  It calls us back to the centrality of our life with God.   It is in this sense that we can call boredom a “blessed” sensation, for it serves to prompt us to reach out to Christ, and find our satisfaction in him alone. 


[i] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; 1953 Letters and Papers from Prison, (New York, NY. Touchstone Publishers)

[ii] Williams, Rowan; 2014 The Wound of Knowledge. (London, UK; Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd) Kobo Edition

Bonhoeffer, Statistics, and the True Focus of the Church.

Do you think Jesus feels invisible in today’s churches, like a guest at a party with whom no one chooses to converse?  I mean, sure he was invited.  We acknowledge his presence as a point of doctrine.  We may even state that the gathering is held in his honor.  However, is that where it ends?  Is Jesus left standing in the corners waiting for our eyes and ears to turn to him?

This pondering was piqued when I noticed the cover page of the latest edition of the Anglican Journal.  In dramatic bold type, the Journal heralded, “Gone by 2040?”  The article references a now well-known statistic; that the year 2040 is the “0 date” for the Anglican Church of Canada.  At this time, the last Anglican will turn out the lights, and the long history of Anglican theology and worship will be no more.  Nothing says “Happy New Year” like a message of impending doom!  The article goes on to talk about theories as to why this the case and how the church today might respond.  Yet while we toss around our theories and strategies for the church’s future, I have to wonder if Jesus stands in the corner hoping that eventually will look to him.

This is not to suggest that the church today has nothing to address.  Of course we do.  Nevertheless, I believe we make a mistake when we overly focus on recapturing the glories of the past.  When we do this, we cast our vision backwards to the days or years when the church was successful, truly established.  One comments, “I remember when every Christmas service was packed to the brim!”, whereas another laments, “In my day, we had a 50 person children’s choir!”  Of course, such statements may be factually true, but dwelling on such things only serve to take our attention the blessing of Christ in our midst. The church community can never be established in any reality, here and now, if we are too busy trying to picture what the church community looked like fifty years ago.

Likewise, I believe we err when we assert that the future of the church is somehow dependent upon the strategic implementation of our well-thought-out programs, whether that be “Fresh Expressions,” “Alpha courses” or whatever the newest fix-it trend may be.  To do so is to believe that the future of the church must include success and societal recognition as if the Christendom of the past must be the Lord’s desire for our future.  Is this not the unspoken point when we reference our percentage amid the Canadian population?

When we focus too much on the glory of the past, or on establishing the glory of the future, we tend to see the present existence of the church only as a stain on the church’s true nature.  Our dreams for what the church should be dismisses what the church is. We discard the present reality of our life together, along with the present reality of Christ’s own work within the church, in favour of a fantasy.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer actually speaks to this in his important book, Life Together.

Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christlike community is a hindrance to the genuine community and must be broken up so that the genuine community can survive.  The one who loves their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself becomes destroyers of that community.  (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 36)

Bonhoeffer follows this passage with a long paragraph elucidating God’s hatred toward our “wishful dreaming” about the Church.  For Bonhoeffer, dreaming about what the church ought to look like, as opposed to what the church held by Christ actually is, is rooted in pride and egoism. We base our dreams about the church upon our self-focused desire to realize our own glory and prestige.  The human image of the church replaces God’s own desire for the church. The wish-dream causes us to remain inwardly focused. “They act as if they have to create the Christian community”, Bonhoeffer notes (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 37).   We look only within within for a way reclaim the glorious past. Instead of humbly accepting the Lord’s activity, we make demands upon how the Lord should work in the midst of his community.  We often do this when we equate “future” with “numerical growth.”  In doing so we stand against the present reality of Christ as the head of the church today. We set ourselves up as those who judge the church’s success or failure.  As Bonhoeffer notes, such judgement is based on our limited view, so that “whatever does not go [our] way, [we] call a failure”, writes Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 36).  Fixating on an idealized image of the church blocks us from responding to the incarnate presence and activity of their Lord in our midst. More to the point, however, it is to mistake the fundamental nature of the church itself as a body realized by the incarnate presence of Christ. It is Christ alone who creates, holds together, and sustains the church.

Bonhoeffer calls for a radical embracement of the hear-and-now of the church community, one that I believe we would do well to heed. “The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting,” he writes. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 37)  We are to lay aside our idealized dreams of past or future glory in order to embrace the glory of the Lord in our midst.  Christ, and Christ alone, is to be the focus of the community.  Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.  The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 38)

Can we stop trying to realize an ideal and instead focus on participating in the reality into which Christ has invited us?

It may be tempting to see Bonhoeffer’s thoughts as overly theological, devoid of any real world applications.  We may think that such thoughts are great for seminaries and theological books, but surely offer no word given the condemning statistics our present-day.  I believe such a response is misguided.  One of the reasons why I find Bonhoeffer’s words so profound for today’s church is precisely the ecclesial reality surrounding Bonhoeffer’s ministry.  Bonhoeffer did not pen Life Together during a high point of church power and prestige.  In fact, the exact opposite was the case.  Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together in 1938, while the German church was struggling with its response to Hitler and the Nazi agenda.  The Nazi Party had systematically closed seminaries throughout Germany, attempting to seize control of the church’s future.  Just prior to Bonhoeffer writing this book, the secret police raided, and closed, the underground seminary at Finkenwald where Bonhoeffer had taught.  Hitler’s systematic assault on the church did not stop at the closure of seminaries, however.  The secret police forced many German pastors to take an oath of personal allegiance to Hitler; those who refused awaited arrested and subsequent execution.

Bonhoeffer faced a crippling reality.  Nazism had a stranglehold on the church, one that did not look like it as going to subside.  The national church stood silent in the face of the holocaust.  Even the Confessing Church, the body that was to stand faithful to the gospel under Nazi regime, had unfortunately continually shown itself incapable to take an authoritative stance against the horrors occurring around them.  Instead of a 20-year statistical projection regarding the church’s demise, Bonhoeffer saw the death of the church looking much more immanent.  In response, he wrote Life Together. This book was penned precisely against the backdrop of war and holocaust, when one would be tempted to retreat into dreams about the glorious past.  Instead of wishful fantasies about how great things were in the past, or about future growth, Bonhoeffer speaks to the need to embrace the church as it exists in the present.

This brings us back around to the Anglican Journal and the statistic regarding our demise in just 20 years.  Bonhoeffer reminds me that the church has always faced a precarious future.  There has never been a time where the church is able to sit back and claim of itself “Aha! I have arrived!”  Yet despite this reality, Christ has continued to call his church into existence.  This is as true to Anglicanism as it is to other denominations.  Therefore, let us not be too swept up by doomsday statistics.  Let us not work ourselves in a frenzy attempting to fix something that ultimately, cannot be fixed by our efforts.  Rather, as Hebrews reminds us, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)

 

*Note: All citations taken from Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, 2005; Life Together And Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vo.5); Minneapolis, First Fortres Press,).

Individualism: The scourge of the Church.

We all know that the church today is getting smaller.  Denominations are dwindling; churches around the country are closing their doors; more and more people live without any discernible church connection.  Sure, there is a rise of spirituality, but that rarely translates into involvement in a faith community.  When someone describes themselves as ‘spiritual not religious’ it usually means their spirituality does not involve anyone else (and rarely does it involve any spiritual practices).

There are many ideas about why this happening and how we are to address this decline.  Some say we should jettison the traditional church in favour for a new, contemporary, and relevant expression of faith.  Old practices and ancient rhythms simply do not speak to the more modern tempered.  Yet this does not actually solve the problem.  Opting for a more contemporary skin does not actually address what lies behind the decline in the church.  Underneath much of the experience of church decline today is the problem of individualism.

Case in point: For the past 10 years, my church has experienced decline.  Some of this is because of natural occurrences in the life of a community.  Parishioners have died, some of have moved away.  However, what is most intriguing is that, while the active congregation has declined over the past decade, the parish list has remained the same.  We haven’t actually lost members. So what is going on?  The reality that we face, and that I assume many of us face, is that people simply do not attend church as regularly as before.  Those who used to come three Sundays per month now come one, and those who attended only once per month now only show up every other month.  The lack of attendance by those who belong to the church, I think, is one of the key reasons for church decline.

Importantly, this lack of attendance by once-active parishioners is not based on the church style.  Rather, it illustrates a particular view of the church; namely, that church is a voluntary activity that one can choose to engage or disengage in at any time.  The rise of language speaking to the church needing to ‘feed me’ is symptomatic of this individualist lens through which we view the church.   When we view the church individualistically, we base our involvement with church on personal preferences.  Likes and dislikes become the basis for how we value participation in the community of faith.  Thus, when something better comes along, whether that be a sporting event or another community, one feels free to step away from the community of faith.  It is precisely because of this individualism that simply replacing the traditional expression of church with a more contemporary one will ultimately fail to effect widespread growth.  The different ‘flavours’ of church aside, we still live in a time when church is seen as a voluntary engagement.  What we need to do is begin addressing what we actually believe the church to be.

Writing in the 1930’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has some challenging words to say about this.

“Only when an individualistic outlook began to transform this obvious necessity into a psychological one did it ask about the meaning of the assembly [of worship] in terms of its usefulness and necessity for the individual.  This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of the church-community.  It is therefore also completely useless to attempt to respond to it by listing a whole host of internal or external advantages, or moral obligations, which might lead the individual into the church. . . Indeed, we submit that the very question is inappropriate to the subject matter. To justify this position we can only point to the concept of the church-community itself.   Thus, a justification for the purpose of the assembly is not lacking altogether; it is not simply an entrenched traditional habit, as one might assume.  However, the justification simply lies on a completely different plain . . . Since I belong to the church-community, I come to the assembly; this is the simple rationale of those who are assembled.  This act is not based on utilitarian considerations, or a sense of duty, but is ‘organic’ and obvious behaviour.

Bonhoeffer does well to get in pointing to the individualism that plagues the church today.  To argue why one is to go to church instead of another activity is to reinforce that the church exists to solely to meet the whims and likes of the individual.   This does nothing to address the problem of individualism, nor does it aid in informing the person about the true nature of the church.  Bonhoeffer is clear; one comes to church because one belongs to the church.  There is a plain and simple truth that we assert: one’s lives out his/her faith amid the community of believers.  Therefore, active, ongoing, and regular involvement in the worshipping community is simply a call we cannot ignore.  There is, in actuality, no way to get around this.

This post is the first in (probably) many wherein I will try to tease out what it means for us to move away from an individualistic understanding of the church-community.  However, for now, let me say this: I believe that we have to start combating the lie that says it is ok to miss church. I think we should start telling people that ‘liking’ the church is no basis for one’s involvement in church-community.  I think we need to start addressing the harm done to the church-community, and to people’s own spiritual livelihood, when other commitments regularly trump involvement in the community of faith.

These may be fighting words today, as they speak directly against the priority of the self in one’s faith-life.  Yet I believe this is necessary if we wish to go forward as the church which God ordains, equips, and empowers.

 

Bonhoeffer quote taken fromBonhoeffer, Dietrich.  Sanctum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church; from “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 1”; Minneapolis, First Fortress Press, 2009. Pg. 227.